Pioneertown, California, is likely the most unusual community in the nation. Walking down “Mane” Street, you’d swear you were in a genuine old western town. While the high desert plain where Pioneertown was built has several historic areas, like the Rose Mine, where millions of dollars in gold were extracted from the mountains, the little burg is a mere fifty-something.
To western movie buffs, Pioneertown is hallowed ground. Trigger and Champion once left their hoof prints in the dusty roads around town. Roy and Dale, Gene and the rest of the western movie elite were all filmed here. Pioneertown is a place of memories and ghosts of the television serials, a unique hamlet that began as a movie set and evolved into a real community.
It all began in 1946 when cowboy actor Dick Curtis rode his horse four miles up into the rugged Sawtooth Mountains from Yucca Valley to have a look at a piece of land he bought from the railroad…sight unseen! Stopping on a bluff, he gazed out over a grassy valley nestled on the shoulders of the San Bernardino Mountains. Curtis realized this would be the perfect place to shoot western movies. At an elevation of over 4,000 feet, it was cooler than most desert locations, the sky was smog free, and there wasn’t any noise from sirens, autos or airplanes.
When Curtis approached his Hollywood buddies, including Roy Rogers, Russell “Lucky” Hayden (Hopalong Cassidy’s sidekick), Bud Abbott, and a host of other stars and businessmen, they concurred that the movie town was a great investment. Forming a corporation, they agreed the buildings would be more than old western facades. By creating structures with usable interiors, production companies could save a great deal of money. For instance, the Red Dog Saloon doubled as a restaurant for cast and crew. The livery stable was actually a huge soundstage. The exterior of the bowling alley frequented by Roy Rogers and his friends (like Bing Crosby) looks like an old cantina. Other western-style structures housed wardrobe, make-up, editing rooms, production offices, and housing for the crew.
Pioneertown was named for the “Sons of the Pioneers,” Roy Rogers’ musical group, who were shareholders in the venture. It took a while to get things rolling, but by about 1950 the area had become a bustling movie set. Producer Phil Krasne was the first to relocate his film company to Pioneertown, where he shot dozens of episodes of “The Cisco Kid.” Pioneertown continued to be used as an all-inclusive, working production set for nearly two decades. “Judge Roy Bean,” filmed at Russell Hayden’s ranch across the road, and “Annie Oakley” were among the most famous of what became known as “horse soaps” made there.
Sadly, when the popularity of western films waned, the town began to deteriorate. Determined to keep Pioneertown alive and kicking, residents have continued a long-standing local tradition. Dressed in period costumes, they perform hold-ups, hangin’s and shootouts each weekend for the city folks that come to visit. It’s not unusual to see a “hussy” driving a carriage through town, or a cowboy resembling Black Bart tying his horse to a post on Mane Street, where the road sign reads, “Horse and Foot Traffic Only.” Other signs warn that car drivers kickin’ up dust will be shot!
Some buildings have succumbed to the elements, now mere piles of wood and rubble. Others have been maintained, but bear the scars of time, wind and rain. Inside the remaining false-front buildings are dwellings occupied by this hearty breed of residents, most of whom have spit and vinegar running through their veins. And yet, you’ll never meet a friendlier, more interesting bunch of folks anywhere.
“Where else can you ride into town, tie your horse to a hitchin’ rail, and pick up your mail at the post office?” a burly, gray-bearded man told me from atop his horse. “We’ve got the best trails left in California. Can’t say that about many places these days, can you?”
He had a point. Pioneertown has become a favorite weekend retreat for horse lovers. You can you trailer your horse, rent a corral for only $10.00, sleep in a motel room that was frequented by Gene Autry or John Barrymore, and ride on some of the gol-darnedest pretty trails on earth. The scenery varies from high desert shrubs and wildflowers, to hundreds of crooked Joshua trees, jagged peaks, and canyons with willow-lined streams. If you don’t have a horse, you can hike on the California Riding and Hiking Path. Nearby Pipes Canyon and Rimrock are “perdy” as any nature lover could ask for. Pioneertown’s clear blue skies give way to marmalade sunsets and cloudless black nights. Tourists from all over the world come to view the milky sweep of the galaxy. There aren’t many places left in the world where the night darkness and clean air allow such flawless views of the constellations.
Most of today’s visitors have no idea about Pioneertown’s fascinating history. Folks come to trail ride, hike, or catch a concert at the famous local tavern, “Pappy and Harriet’s PioneertownPalace.” This saloon-style restaurant has served up a mess of vittles to the likes of Drew Barrymore, Sheryl Crow, Wynona Judd, Mick Fleetwood, and a host of well-known celebrities, who sometimes take the mike and give an impromptu performance.
When you leave town, you’ll see a sign…words from Roy Rogers’ trademark song left at the place he helped make famous. “Happy Trails to You, Until We Meet Again.” Ah, yes. Pioneertown retains its quaint western charm.